New Study Shows an Ice-Free Arctic Soon, But We Still Debate Whether Climate Change Models Can Be Trusted

Candice Gaukel Andrews May 2, 2013 11

A new report says the Arctic Ocean could be free of summer sea ice as soon as 2020. ©NOAA/Jeremy Potter

The Arctic Ocean could be free of summer sea ice as soon as sometime in this decade, and it’s extremely likely by 2050, according to a new study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That’s much sooner than the previously projected time frame of after mid century.

Not only has the timetable for a summer ice-free Arctic been reset, it seems there is a subtle shift in message from the NOAA: we should no longer be debating what will happen if the sea ice melts; it’s now more about the consequences of when it does.

Since the NOAA researchers used three different methods to make this newest prediction, however, some are saying it proves that even scientists believe that climate change models can’t be completely trusted.

So, is attention intentionally being deflected away from what inevitably is going to happen to our planet to the process used to predict it?

The minimum extent of the ice is declining faster than the maximum extent. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

A three-pronged approach

In the study, the NOAA researchers themselves admitted that “there is no one perfect way to predict summer sea-ice loss in the Arctic.” So they utilized three different methods. All three resulted in widely different dates, but overall, they still suggested nearly sea-ice-free summers in the Arctic before the middle of this century.

In the first of the three approaches, named the “trendsetters,” the scientists used observed sea-ice trends. Over the past decade, trends have showed that total Arctic sea ice decreased rapidly. By projecting these trends into the future, a nearly sea-ice-free Arctic would appear to be the case by the year 2020.

The second approach, called the “stochasters” approach, was based on assuming future multiple—but random in time—large sea-ice-loss events such as those that occurred in 2007 and 2012. Using this method, it is estimated that it would take several more such events to reach a nearly sea-ice-free state in the summer. Factoring in the likelihood of such events, results suggest a nearly sea-ice-free Arctic by about 2030, although there is a large uncertainty in the timing.

In the third approach, or “modelers,” the large collection of global climate change model results was used to predict atmosphere, land, ocean and sea-ice conditions over time. These models showed that the earliest possible loss of sea ice will be around 2040, as greenhouse gas concentrations increase and the Arctic warms. The median timing in these models is closer to 2060, although the researchers noted that there are several reasons to believe that this median timing of sea-ice loss may be too slow.

In summary, then, extending summertime sea-ice melting trends into the future predicts an ice-free Arctic by 2020. Adding a few random up-and-down events to current melting trends pushes the date back to 2030, while a more complicated climate change model suggests an ice-free Arctic in 2040—possibly 2060. But none of these methods foresees the polar ice cap remaining intact long-term.

Some summer sea ice could remain on the northern edges of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and Greenland. ©Olaf Malver

The devil is in the details

When all three approaches are considered, it seems clear that the Arctic will certainly be nearly ice-free in summer within the next 10 to 45 years. The researchers emphasize that the word nearly is important, since some ice is likely to remain on the northern edges of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and Greenland.

That quantification and the widely disparate dates resulting from the three methods have caused some to interpret the report as showing that no sort of modeling is useful. Due to the inherent unpredictability of climate systems, they say, it is impossible to accurately use models to determine future weather. Since climate models have been unable to simulate major known features of past epochs, such as the Ice Ages or the very warm climates of the Miocene, Eocene and Cretaceous Periods, they should not be trusted to predict future climate changes. Even Jonathan Gilligan, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University, has written that models “can’t predict the exact details with a lot of confidence.”

Other contrarians point to the recent news of record sea ice recovery. However, it is important to point out that such a result should be expected since the minimum extent of the ice is declining faster than the maximum extent.

Still, all in all, say the NOAA researchers, the study shows that Arctic sea-ice loss is very likely to occur in the first rather than the second half of the 21st century, with a possibility of loss within a decade or two.

Do you think that the negative reactions to the methodology details and varying dates of such studies is just a means to deflect attention away from the bigger conclusion that Arctic summer sea ice will soon disappear? Or is it just “good science” to question the process of prediction?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,



  1. montamuebles May 12, 2013 at 8:29 am - Reply

    According to a study in 2030 to 50% is ice-free antartida

  2. Peter Titze May 7, 2013 at 10:22 am - Reply

    The question is how much of the current climate changes are man made or a natural occurrence. I am a bit confused on the subject of global warming since I recently came across a study indicating that in the 12th century or so people in Greenland where able to grow wheat and the coastline had trees growing.

  3. Tony Powell May 6, 2013 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    but true.

  4. Kevin Pack May 5, 2013 at 11:02 am - Reply

    The Washington Post

    The Arctic Ocean is warming up, icebergs are growing scarcer and in some places the seals are finding the water too hot, according to a report to the Commerce Department from Consulafft, at Bergen, Norway.

    Reports from fishermen, seal hunters, and explorers all point to a radical change in climate conditions and hitherto unheard-of temperatures in the Arctic zone. Exploration expeditions report that scarcely any ice has been met as far north as 81 degrees 29 minutes.

    Soundings to a depth of 3,100 meters showed the gulf stream still very warm. Great masses of ice have been replaced by moraines of earth and stones, the report continued, while at many points well-known glaciers have entirely disappeared.

    Very few seals and no white fish are found in the eastern Arctic, while vast shoals of herring and smelts which have never before ventured so far north, are being encountered in the old seal fishing grounds. Within a few years it is predicted that due to the ice melt the sea will rise and make most coastal cities uninhabitable.

    I apologize, I neglected to mention that this report was from November 2, 1922, as reported by the AP and published in The Washington Post – 90 years ago.

    This is a major reason why we need to be skeptical, weather changes and wee have short memories, or some people are looking for an easy way to make a buck.

    All this “climate change” reminds of the old children’s story of “Chicken Little, and the Sky is Falling”.

  5. John Winnie May 5, 2013 at 8:30 am - Reply

    “There’s someone in my lab…” Most would agree that peer review isn’t perfect by any stretch, but it’s the best we’ve got. A good example of what happens without it is only a click away from this page – the internet. Imagine trying to sort through all the twaddle and outright deception (often for profit) to find anything approximating truth on topics ranging from climate change to intelligent design. Peer review is meant to be antagonistic, and usually is. Anyone who says it’s a good old boy system supporting the status quo simply can’t defend their work, in which case, it doesn’t warrant publication and won’t survive the peer review process. (And, amen to your last paragraph.)

  6. Robert Parker May 5, 2013 at 8:29 am - Reply

    Do you remember ‘room temperature superconductivity’? There is a lot of poor research done, even in fields where peer review is pretty good. And global warming is not a field in which peer review is pretty good. Everyone has an agenda.

  7. James Crants May 5, 2013 at 8:27 am - Reply

    “Because the deniers can’t come up with data refuting climate change, they instead resort to challenging how science is done.”

    There’s someone in the lab where I work who doesn’t accept global warming. He’s posted a cartoon at his desk painting peer review as a way of making sure only the research that supports the status quo gets published, referring specifically to climate change.

    I think it’s fair to say that there’s a higher standard of proof if your results are unexpected (extraordinary claims really do require extraordinary evidence), and I know one very good scientist who has objections to peer review that I don’t really understand. But I have to wonder what someone who thinks peer review is about promulgating hoaxes is doing in ANY science lab, even one that doesn’t study climate.

  8. John Winnie May 3, 2013 at 1:13 pm - Reply

    “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” is a useful way to look at models. No, we can’t predict what the exact temperature will be at noon next Wednesday, but we can model and predict overall trends quite well. Because NASA’s (and others’) models are based both on past data, and probabilities of future interactions, they of course cannot predict exact dates, but rather a range. Because the deniers can’t come up with data refuting climate change, they instead resort to challenging how science is done. The irony here is that on the rare occasions when someone’s science ever so slightly supports their view, they trumpet it to the world. When the science refutes their stand, they call it “junk science.” I don’t think it is accurate to say that “we” are still debating climate change or the models predicting future change. “They”, meaning the likes of Exxon and Mobil oil, via their mouth-piece organisations (Heartland Institute, American Enterprise Institute, others), are trying to make it sound as if there is scientific debate. The fact that their ranks are being steadily depleted doesn’t bother them, they will continue to muddy the waters as much as possible to delay meaningful actions. Why? Think about the amounts of money involved, literally 100s of millions of dollars a day in profits. Thus every day restrictions on carbon emissions are stalled, vast amounts of wealth are accumulated. As long as freedom of speech protects deceptive speech, this will not change, and the manipulators of public ignorance will continue to get their way.

  9. Bob Johnston May 3, 2013 at 1:09 pm - Reply

    Questioning the scientific models we use is a necessary part of good research. Without a pinch of skepticism we remain blindfolded and potentially distracted from the truths we seek. I would also say its is negligent to think that man and the industrial age isn’t having a drastic effect on the rate of the current climatic shifts. One need only view night pictures of the earth to see how our footprint and influence has impacted our home.

  10. Carlos Reyes May 3, 2013 at 1:08 pm - Reply

    The amount of variables that play into this are vast. I feel it is good science to question the predictions of the climate change models. However regardless of if the models agree with each other regarding dates it should not be disputed that there is a major problem that needs to be fixed. If properly addressed, in the next 5 years the models could say that the reduction of GHG has been so immense from 5 years ago that our prior models should be thrown out and an ice free arctic is either pushed back further or no longer a threat. That is the beauty of science it is ever changing dependent on emerging data. What is important is what each of us do today and now!

  11. edward rodney adcox May 3, 2013 at 4:27 am - Reply

    sad : – (

Leave A Response »